Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 15

Deng Xiaoping encapsulated China’s new international strategy in the early 1980s with the slogan “peace and development.” This phrase embodied a decisive break with Mao Zedong’s “international line” of “war and revolution,” and shifted Chinese efforts towards developing a peaceful, stable international environment. While Mao presided over a high-risk and high-cost confrontational approach to international affairs that sought to revolutionize both China and the international order, Deng’s approach was to avoid ideological conflicts, and not to involve China in matters unrelated to its own immediate interests. Moreover, Deng sought to maintain good relations with all countries, especially those capable of assisting China’s development – like the wealthy and technologically advanced capitalist countries of the West. Whereas Mao had been ready to throw China into conflict on behalf of revolutionary causes around the world, Deng systematically de-revolutionized China’s foreign relations and reoriented them towards modernizing China’s economy and military.

Despite the fact that Deng’s approach has been continued by his two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, there have been two notable attempts within the Chinese Communist Party elite to move China’s international policy in a more militant, ideological direction. The first was a reaction to Gorbachev’s “betrayal” of the East European communist regimes in 1989, and the near-revolution in China which followed. The second was during the Sino-U.S. confrontation over Taiwan in the mid-1990s. But on both occasions, advocates of the less ideological, less confrontational, more Dengist approach prevailed.

The broad purpose of China’s Deng-inspired drive for modernization is to make China rich and powerful, thereby restoring it to the position of high international influence and status that it enjoyed throughout most of the several millennia of its existence. According to China’s modern nationalist narrative, the country’s cultural achievements and great state power rightfully made it the leading power in East Asia and one of the leading (perhaps the leading) power of the world. This natural and just arrangement was over-turned by aggressive Western imperialism in the 19th century, which reduced China to a position of “semi-colony” and “national slavery.” The CCP’s modern history is about ending and blotting out this “century of national humiliation.”

Deng and his successors share with Mao the core nationalist mission of ending China’s “national humiliation” and restoring China to its historic position of international eminence. They differ, however, in how to achieve this goal. Mao’s program centered on military power and confrontation, with the goal of establishing China as the driving revolutionary force in the world; he saw comprehensive state control and planning as ways to achieve this in the shortest possible period. Deng and his followers concluded that Mao’s militarization of China’s economy and society, plus his ideological, confrontational approach to international affairs, had not, in fact, made China rich and powerful, but poor and weak. They also concluded that unless China was de-militarized, control over lives of the people relaxed, and more resources devoted to improving standards of living, “the Chinese Communist Party would have no future.”

As the USSR slid into extinction and Chinese analysts probed the reasons of its failure, Deng and his followers found further confirmation of the wisdom of avoiding the militarization of an economy – this flaw being identified by Chinese analysts as a key cause of Soviet demise. China’s leaders responded to the Soviet collapse by transforming a Maoist totalitarian state into an East Asian, authoritarian, developmental state. The shift from “war and revolution” to “peace and development” was part of this transformation.

China’s leaders have not rejected Mao’s quest for great military power. Frank appreciation of the close link between political and military power continues. Nor is there much difference in terms of recognizing the key role of technology in forging advanced military capabilities. Military power is, however, placed in a broader context. Whereas Mao concentrated all possible resources on strengthening China’s military capabilities, Deng and his followers recognized the key contributions of economic productivity and efficiency, revenue generation, higher educational levels, organizational flexibility and effectiveness, the importance of individual initiative and entrepreneurial drive, and the wealth-generating potential of participation in the global economy. China’s Dengist leaders also saw that confrontational relations with the advanced capitalist countries contradicted efforts to acquire from those countries a range of sophisticated technology and scientific knowledge. The term “comprehensive national power” is used in China to refer to this broader context of military power.

Another key element of China’s international strategy is avoidance of confrontation with the United States. Deng, unlike Mao, recognized the stability of U.S. world-dominance post-World War II. He concluded that if China were to draw on the resources of the advanced capitalist countries to modernize China, Beijing would have to maintain good relations with the leading capitalist countries – especially the U.S. To this end, Deng manipulated U.S.-Soviet rivalry to China’s advantage. By aligning China with the United States in the global conflict against the Soviet Union, Deng secured higher levels of U.S. support for China’s modernization drive: access to U.S. consumer goods markets, technology, higher education and advanced scientific knowledge, investment, as well as sympathetic support in multi-national development institutions like the World Bank.

The end of the Cold War (combined with the 1989 near-revolution in China) demolished this core strategy and, for a while threw China’s diplomacy into crisis. After considerable debate within the CCP, China eventually decided to continue the strategy of embracing cooperation with the United States. Chinese analysts advanced what might be called the “law of avoidance” to explain and justify this approach. Based on historical analyses of the rise and fall of states over the last five centuries, this law postulates that rising nations that come into direct confrontation with reigning hegemonic powers fail in their drive for national eminence: for example, France in the early 19th century, or Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Rising nations that avoid confrontation with, or even band-wagon onto, the reigning hegemon have enjoyed greater ultimate success (e.g., Britain in the 17th century and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries). China’s leadership concluded it would be better to cooperate with the United States in order to accomplish its drive for national greatness. 9/11 greatly broadened the opportunities for such strategic cooperation.

But the determination to avoid confrontation with the United States makes China vulnerable to U.S. moves inimical to Chinese interests. Such U.S. actions are countered by a number of tactics. China’s ultimate threat is proclaimed that it will abandon cooperation with the United States and return to a policy of confrontation. This threat is mainly used to ward off U.S. intervention in two main areas: the stability of CCP control over Chinese society, and “Taiwan independence.” U.S. moves in these two areas that ignore Chinese warnings will prompt a confrontation, even to the point of war, regardless of the costs to China – or so Beijing informs Washington. From Beijing’s point of view, the United States would simply be unable to defeat China, and the costs of attempting to do so would be extremely high, and ultimately unbearable. Beijing believes that should the United States decide on a trial of strength with China, the asymmetry of military and economic power favoring the United States would be more than offset by the asymmetry of political systems, and will consequently favor China. This, in any case, is the line China uses to deter the U.S. from attempting to use China’s dependency as a means to undermining the CCP.

Incorporating Taiwan into the PRC is a major objective of the CCP’s new leadership. From Beijing’s perspective, since the restoration of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, Taiwan is the last major piece of Chinese territory stolen from China during its “century of national humiliation” – Taiwan alone remains to be reunited with the Motherland. Taken by Japanese imperialism in 1895 and returned to China through the Cairo Declaration of 1943, the PRC wishes to see Taiwan reunited with China under the same “one country, two systems” framework applied to Hong Kong. This comports with the millennia old tradition that all Chinese should be united under a single ruler. Achievement of this goal ended inter-dynastic periods of fragmentation, and was deemed a prime duty of each newly-established dynasty. This deeply imbued political culture was one of the reasons why China held together over the millennia, and continues to influence Chinese thinking about Taiwan.

From the standpoint of modern Chinese nationalism, the “return” of Taiwan is essential for China to become strong. Left unstated in Chinese publicity about Taiwan, but clearly understood by Chinese analysts, is the fact that adding Taiwan’s impressive technological and economic prowess to the Mainland will substantially enhance China’s comprehensive national power. Chinese analysts also understand the geopolitical implications of control over Taiwan. Under PLA control, the island shields the central China coast, coastal sea lanes, and projects Chinese power into the western Pacific. Left beyond PLA control, Taiwan offers a platform for a hostile power to threaten China’s southeast coast and its vital overseas trade.

Beijing’s strategy for incorporation of Taiwan is to grow Chinese power until it over-awes both Taiwan and the United States. As China’s power approximates that of the United States, and as China demonstrates its willingness to use that power to incorporate Taiwan, Washington will be forced to disengage from Taiwan. The American people will not be willing to trade Los Angeles for Shanghai, while the Chinese people would bear such sacrifices for China’s reunification and restoration to greatness. In the meantime, China will use its influence to prevent injury to its de jure claim to Taiwan. In the fullness of time, if Taipei and Washington dispute Beijing’s “one country, two systems” terms, then a trial of strength with the United States may be necessary.